#155 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Space Chapter

YSC_1The distances between stars or planets can be compared to some of the relationships we have with the closest people we see on a daily basis; many times it can be vast and wide. How well do we really know each other by way of how each of us truly feels about each other? A more intriguing thought, what secrets do we conceal, or what elements from our past do we struggle with that haunt us and affect our current relationships? The final production of Madhouse’s adaptations of Osamu Tezuka’s collective Phoenix manga, The Space Chapter, would leave historic Japan behind for the far future and outer space and would deal with these issues of inner space head on. The lessons of karma, duty and fate are yet again front and center stage.

YSC_2Bias here, this is my personal favorite of the three as this is the most psychological, the darkest and the most passionate in terms of relationship dynamics. As an OVA set in the far future, in deep outer space and with highly advanced technology you would think the clothes of science fiction would overtake the content of the the story’s relationship dynamics with spectacle and fantasy. The Space Chapter is a great example of science fiction done very well by integrating both and pushing the intensity even higher. Outer space can be a place where much contemplation can be observed and where isolation, or being alone, can bring out the best and worst in all of us. If Ingmar Bergman borrowed the set from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to make a movie, I think this would be the product… except in this case it is animated and not live action.

YSC_3Four passengers on an interstellar spaceship are suddenly awoken from stasis to realize that the ship they are traveling on has been hit by a meteor, or something similar. In haste they rush to find their fifth comrade who was piloting and watching over the ship had mysteriously died during their sleep. Realizing the damage is beyond repair, they all decide to all abandon ship in separate escape capsules. Now adrift in space alone with limited air and food, the situation becomes one of survival and opening up about their mysterious fifth crew member. Everyone had a different story to tell. He was rumored to be immortal and forever young. He also seemed to be an android from medical examinations. There were even romantic feelings between him and the lone female crew member. His last words left in the ships log struck a note of fear in the others, someone was out to kill him. Who could it be?

YSC_4To add more drama to our story a mysterious fifth capsule appears and catches up with the other four belonging to the fallen mystery man, including signs of a passenger. One by one the original four members would be reduced to two leaving the remaining duo to land on a mysterious planet. From here the story’s mysteries begin to twist even more with the ultimate truths coming out. … and what of our friend the phoenix? She is most definitely here and is a very integral part of the story as she has a very special relationship with our mysterious crew member. The lessons of karma and balance abound with his past as we see the corruption of what was a good innocent man showing a side of evil that we wish did not exist in humanity.

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Ninja Scroll), the inclusion of his personal touch is seen throughout the OVA, minus the super heavy action he is often noted for. The stylized character designs add a layer of maturity to Tezuka’s originals and mixed with Madhouse’s signature heavy use of limited color (blue for this OVA) in the capsule scenes and stark lighting add to this production’s intensity. While this may have been the final outing for Phoenix in the 1980s it would not be the last overall (the 13 episode TV series from the early 2000s is great!). Osamu Tezuka’s work is key and essential for all of us who regard ourselves as fans of Japanese animation. This trilogy as a whole (Karma Chapter and Yamato Chapter) is one of the best examples of the output from the 1980s and is finally now a part of the Classic Anime Museum. It has been a long time coming.

#154 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Yamato Chapter

PYC_1We continue our journey through the Phoenix trilogy from the 1980s with the second part, an adaptation of the Yamato Chapter. Debuting as a followup to the previous year’s film Karma Chapter, 1987 would bring the Yamato Chapter as a direct to home video OVA release. The issues of karma, fate and destiny would be told once again in another historic era from Japan’s history. And riding along side for the ride to make sure that order and fate are in good hands is that beautiful bird of fire herself, that avian goddess, the hi no tori, the firebird, the phoenix.

PYC_2From some quick guerilla research, the Yamato Chapter is loosely based (very loosely) on the famous traditional legend of Yamato Takeru, a name not known very well to us in the west. From time to time and from watching various anime, we may come across and hear this very name… Yamato Takeru No Mikoto… Oh lord not Garzey’s Wing. Yet beyond the experiences we have may hearing this name from oddly dubbed projects we come to learn about the Arthurian qualities of this mythological tale and figure and it’s importance to Japan. … reason #1 to watch anime: you subtly learn more about Japanese culture!… How ironic that historically both king Arthur and Yamato Takeru are from very similar eras in time and even though a great distance existed between both heroes in terms of worldly distance, they arrived concurrently in time. Could this be the work of our friend the phoenix? Hmm… Onward now and back to the Yamato Chapter

PYC_3Tezuka’s reimagined version begins with a pastoral scene featuring a traveling youth, Oguna. While walking along one day he gets shot in the arm by the bow of a beautiful young maiden, Kajika. Too bad this was not cupid’s arrow instead, because from the beginning these two had sparks in their eyes; love at first sight defined. This developing relationship will become the cornerstone, the pillar, the axis, from which the entire story centers itself. Star crossed lovers who share a common destiny. While treating Oguna’s wound, Kajika would introduce her brother, Takeru, leading to a moment of hesitation in the eyes of Oguna. This is a familiar name, but why? Soon Oguna begins to enjoy his stay with the rustic Kumaso tribe and begins to have strong feelings about wanting to join their ranks and marry Kajika. Except there is something that is biting at him. Oguna is actually part of the rival Yamato clan and he has a particular vendetta towards Takeru.

PYC_4A tale of love vs. duty, fate vs. freewill and justice vs. mercy, the Yamato Chapter can be likened to a drama where at the beginning we begin in ignorance and slowly as the plot progresses we move into clarity and truth. Each layer slowly reveals itself to twist the plot in a slightly different direction that finally concludes with a slow tragic tale of love, sacrifice and redemption. The Yamato Chapter becomes at the end of the movie a romance that shows the power of humanity, compassion and trust. The legacy that Oguna and Kajika share together at the end shakes the established order and calls for change, yet it must come in the face of martyrdom; such was their fates. Never think one small step, or sacrifice, towards progress and bringing clarity to all of us is too small as we all have our parts to play in this game of life. Only the phoenix knows what and when our roles have been fulfilled, so keep giving it your best attempt.

Adapting Osamu Tezuka’s original manga was again Madhouse. A double combination of high quality presenting a rare gem of mature genius. As I have said before in regards to any of Tezuka’s Phoenix adaptations, I view these anime productions as one of my sources for spiritual pondering. How many times do we turn to a religion, or spiritual philosophy to find answers to the complexities of life? I know I have and still do yet there is ironically an alternate source via Japanese animation from the pen of anime’s ultimate grandfather. To Osamu Tezuka… I greatly thank you for sharing these stories with us and I hope I can be one source of I don’t know how many to continue your legacy. Peace be with you my friend.

#153 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Karma Chapter

PKC_1The Vedas, The Popul Vuh, The Bible, Hesiod’s Theogony… cultures from around the world have created texts and mythologies explaining the sacred within our universe. All point to similar conclusions since universal order, structure and the balance of harmony are at an essence both in terms of our lives as humans, but also, the grand scope of the cosmos itself. Anime has in my opinion an epic collection of stories as well that show the greater answers to questions we often ponder as we live within the cycles of time and nature. Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix saga is considered his magmum opus, his life’s work and perhaps his most important creation. Several adaptations have been created, but a trilogy made in the mid 1980s will be the focus of this session. In particular, the 1986 film of Hi no Tori: Houou-hen/Phoenix: Karma Chapter.

PKC_2Karma can at times be a difficult subject to fully grasp. We often think the actions put out into the universe will come back to us or others as either good or bad depending on the circumstances. We think also that we control the scheduling of karma and the precise payment for any particular action. In truth… not exactly. We think there is equal justice, divine retribution and free will, but what of predestined fate, or unsuspected surprises? The more I delve into Buddhist philosophies and The Law of Attraction, the more I begin to see that self and other, good and bad, fate and free will are interconnected. The more I see that what I do and what happens to me are in essence one and the same. Tezuka’s Phoenix stories are all about these heavy themes, but for the Karma Chapter, this is played out between the lives of two men, who at two points in their lives meet and share a fate that seems predetermined.

PKC_3One man, Akanemaru, is a sculptor who has a passion for finding a legendary bird to grant him immortal life, the Phoenix. He hopes someday to be recognized for his talents to the point that the need for success and status blinds his humanity. The other man named Gao, is a one armed mass killer with no real goal except to enact his rage. He thinks nothing of causing harm, except for one brief instance where he saves the life of a ladybug. One particular victim would eventually change his perceptions and lead Gao to find a way to atone for his sins. He is a man who is trying to redeem his humanity. Twists of fate for both men as they try on the roles that feed lustful power and compassion. Who is the villain here? Neither as this is a story that draws the line to show that as humans we are both good and evil. All who are good have an essence of evil and the most vile and evil individual also has somewhere a heart that is wounded and wanting love.

PKC_4A grand sculpting competition will eventually settle the fates of both of these men for better or worse and watching alongside is that beautiful bird herself, the phoenix. Is she the great deity of the universe, or a messenger for the gods? We may never know, much like most of the magic of what is life and the totality of the universe. More like a peacock than the usual flaming avian many of us are used to in the west, Tezuka’s phoenix exudes an element of grace and beauty not seen in too many characters of the anime world. Her appearances in every adaptation of Tezuka’s mega epic including the other two chapters of this trilogy (Yamato and Space Chapters), the 1980 film Phoenix 2772 and the 2004 Phoenix TV series are paramount towards the plots for each particular chapter. (I recommend them all if you can find them!)

Telling Tezuka’s grand myth was accomplished via the help of Studio Madhouse along with the directing talent of Rintaro. Adding up three heavyweights should yield a high quality product and without question Phoenix: Karma Chapter is just that. On par with the likes of early Studio Ghibli, Tezuka’s original vision would have a proper presentation in the flashy and colorful 1980s. For many of us, anime titles often become favorites of ours, or fun excursions from reality, but how many become spiritual guidance posts? Tezuka created many classic characters, shows and movies, but for me anything that rings of Phoenix is a holy book deserved to be read and studied.

#152 : Salamander

Salamander_1Not very often one sees the Konami logo making an entrance before the start of an anime. Video games most definitely as Konami created many a classic for early consoles during the 1980s and 1990s, but an anime… what’s the catch? Could it be an anime based on a video game in Konami’s library? Obviously. Anime as a promotional tie in is nothing new and with Konami’s Salamander (Life Force for the NES) a three episode OVA would be commissioned to begin release in 1988. So we have an anime based off of a space ship shooter? A schmup? Work with your strengths here add some heroic characters, space opera and a little character development and you get a production that is actually pretty good.

Salamander_2While the video game of Salamander lays down the foundation of this anime with attacking an alien threat while piloting the ever well designed Vic Viper space craft, other influences would also color the anime into a more flushed out production. Why not add in references to Salamander’s fellow siblings Gradius  and Gradius II: GOFER no Yabou as well. Plus lets include veteran director Hisayuki Toriumi and Studio Pierrot for production and character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto (nice choice!) to polish off this package. Salamander is solid 1980s space opera complete with the look and feel one would expect from the era and best of all you don’t have to be a fan of video games. Now let’s see how this plot unfolds!

Salamander_3Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey we begin with mysterious black monoliths, except these look like the giant stone statues found on Easter Island. Legend states that these protect the planet Latis from a sleeping fire dragon. This dragon has ties with an invading power, the Bacterian of the planet Salamander and recently on the planet Gradius, three young heroes defeated this power. Latis’ prince Lord British (nice name) calls forth these three fighters even though the relations between Latis and Gradius are difficult at best. Arriving in Vic Vipers, our heroes Dan, Eddie and Stephanie make their entrance in front of the regal Lord British. Sounds fairly ordinary at first except Eddie and Stephanie have some baggage from the past which become major plot points. Eddie’s family has ties to the planet Latis and Stephanie mourns the loss of her father from the invasion on their home world of Gradius. Instead of being just a flash and dazzle showing of aerial acrobatics and dogfighting, we get character drama, which I can be sure was not part of the original video gaming experience.

The following two episodes bookend the opener. Episode two acts as a prequel, tying up unfinished business that was hinted at previously, and episode three delivers a subsequent sequel and finale. Being based on space ship shooters it is nice to sit back and relax for once instead of being in intense in the moment. Let the pros handle this one! And maybe it is just me, but Salamander does feel a little slow. Watching the first episode alone is enough of a story in and of itself and then adding in the final two gives more depth, but kind of repeats similar themes, characters and stories already. Maybe I am being a little too critical since I have seen my fair share and a half of space opera anime and know many of the tropes familiar with the genre. That being said, Salamander is still well above the upper end of average.

Salamander_4Cast in the same era as other space opera OVAs like Gunbuster and Dangaioh, Salamander is a worthy recommendation if you can get a hold of it. My initial draw to Salamander were the Mikimoto character designs. As a fan of his work I do my best to track down all that I can to see those tried and true sparkling eyes again and again that he is known for. I won’t lie, this OVA for me is all about the visual appeal. Ironically this anime also led me to later give Gradius a try on the NES; a fun game. As of this writing I have not tried Salamander/Life Force, maybe in the future. And just in case you are wondering… the famous ‘Konami Code’ will not work with this OVA. No free power ups, or 30 extra lives this time round.

#25e : Robot Carnival : Presence

This is one of nine entries that take an in depth look into each of the segments of the 1987 anime compilation Robot Carnival. For the original entry, click here.

RCe_1“Ah… look at all the lonely people”… The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. A sad song that feels quite lonely, a little despondent, saturnine and yet poignantly beautiful wrapped up in sophistication. The same can be said of Yasuomi Umetsu’s Robot Carnival contribution, Presence. This too is a story of loneliness, despondency and regrets that may also be the most gorgeous of all the Robot Carnival films. The level of detail, the colors and the music define this as perhaps the signature segment of Robot Carnival. Mostly in regards to the doll like robot, who could be the mascot for the entire production.

RCe_2Yet with so much beauty there is also pain. Set in a technologically advanced era that is reminiscent of the early 20th century we find a married man to a very successful business woman and also mourns over the fact that his mother never gave him the love he wanted so badly. Much is missing from the feminine in his life and in desperation, and in secret, creates a female robot as a companion in an isolated shed in the country. To some this may be an odd hobby, or fetish, but it is a cry out for loneliness, a desperation to connect to something… perfect. Still no human, or robot, or relationship is perfect. The robot develops her own personality and questions who she is to the amazement of the man. In fear he retaliates destroying something he loves and wanted to love him so dearly. The only thing left are the ghostlike memories that remain. What could have been and what shall I do now and is there a way to return to try again? Common questions that we all have, though we don’t share the same path as this man.

Robot Carnival entry index:

  1. Opening
  2. Franken’s Gears
  3. Deprive
  4. Presence
  5. Starlight Angel
  6. Cloud
  7. Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion
  8. Chicken Man and Red Neck
  9. Ending

#150 : Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise

I remember an old trailer for this movie from the VHS era… “Another time, another land, another chance…” … a very generic and perhaps simple saying, but in terms of the 1987 film Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (long title?), it fits perfectly. This movie is very familiar, very foreign, very optimistic, very nostalgic and very, very well done in terms of craft from the writing to the drawing and even the animation itself. A highlight and perhaps one of the top tier examples of Japan’s output from the 1980s… Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise is still a classic among classics.

WoH_1Before the likes of Gurren Lagann, FLCL, some little franchise by the name of Evangelion and even Gunbuster (GUNBUSTA!), a studio by the name of Gainax was a group of young upstart animators, artists and otakus who had the entrepreneurial spirit to make anime there own way. They earned their reputation from creating several short films made at conventions which exuded the love and obsession for all that was anime and science fiction that permeated their youths. Certain early OVAs would feature these young artists and often times the Chocolate Panic Picture Show is sited as their first commercial project. Maybe, or maybe not? Yet the production that cemented Gainax as a studio and gave birth to the studio we know today was Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. Enter a time when a bunch of upstarts could coax funds from the likes of Bandai and create something completely out of left field. Anything is possible!

WoH_2Many titles from the 1980s are often significant of the era, they are time capsules and in many ways are dated to that particular present moment. Not a bad thing, but very true in many cases. Then you have a select group that go beyond the convention of being stuck in time. This is the truest definition of what a classic is, something that transcends time. The act of being timeless, not bound to the past, but instead relevant and presentable in the present. The Wings of Honnêamise does this by the fact that it is it’s own world, a creation onto itself that looks one part old, some parts new, a little East, a little West, very familiar and unlimitedly foreign. Is this even Earth? Perhaps during the time of Atlantis, or Lemuria, or maybe an alternate dimension of time and space that could be now? If ever there is strength to storytelling is the world building that surrounds the plot and the characters. The world of The Wings of Honnêamise is second to none, in terms of setting, artistic detail, color and even sound (including the musical soundtrack). This is a fully functional organism that is complete.

WoH_3The story tells the rise of a young man, Shiro Lhadatt, who comes from ordinary and plain beginnings. He is nothing special, not too smart, or super heroic. His only passion is to fly jet aircraft and with his average, if not lackluster credentials, he ends up instead in the Space Force, who for the time being are just a rag tag group of men who don’t fit into standard military zeitgeist. Luck would change for Shiro when he meets a fundamentalist girl handing out religious pamphlets. Shiro, who being a red blooded young man, has more interest in the girl than her philosophies, but this soon changes. He soon finds purpose, both from the girl’s literature, but also the hardships she faces as well. He wants to achieve something, become a greater human being and this leads him to volunteer to become the first astronaut.

WoH_4In between insane training, a growing celebrity personalty, assignation attempts, the rumors that war may break out and a bowing to personal desires Shiro partakes one night with the girl he likes, he matures and grows his perspective in regards to what he is doing both as an astronaut, but also as a member of the human race. Combined with the high quality artistry, Shiro’s journey to space is a critical high point for anime, though not the most commercially successful. The Wings of Honnêamise is a large scale film that climaxes on the launch of Shiro into the upper and outer atmospheres, yet that does not eclipse the plot. Shiro’s monologue while in orbit becomes the capstone, the nice ribbon to tie up the package and gives us hope that someday we can go beyond our physical ties of our lives and reach for a goal that may be one part crazy and one part inspiring.

The Wings of Honnêamise is beloved by many and I give it the highest respect if only for the visual presentation, yet there is so much more as well. Due to the fact that I don’t have the love to repeatedly rewatch this film I still give it the highest marks for being what could have been a perfect moment for the Japanese animation industry. Gainax would continue on and create many popular and well known productions, but never again would they make anything as close to Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise.

#149 : Space Fantasia: 2001 Nights

How hard do you like your sci-fi? Aliens, fancy costumes, or flashy warp driving all around the universe have a place, but for this entry I will to put all that into a corner for just a moment. Let instead examine something more humane, slower paced and based in a probable future reality with technology that seems just around the corner. Something more based on the likes of Issac Assimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, or Stanislav Lem. In 1987 a now rare and often over looked one off release would provide answers to the questions stated. I present you with Space Fantasia: 2001 Nights.

2001N_1What if 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Solaris (and I am talking the original Soviet version) could have their essences juiced into the form of 1980s Japanese animation? Space Fantasia: 2001 Nights is beautiful looking for a simple OVA, with those Akio Sugino characters and the craft of TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha), that speaks of science fiction for a more mature palette. Yet 2001 Nights does not hold a candle to Kubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but it works in a more limited space. Both of these live action films in my opinion are sublime masterpieces though also very slow and tough to swallow at times. True auteur genius at work! So an outright comparison may be unfair, but it will be a starting point. On a personal note 2001 (Kubrick’s) is still one of my all time favorite films so when I found an anime called 2001 Nights I had to give it a try. And what I found was a story about hope, ambition and struggle all guised under the moniker of the true bond of love within one’s family.

2001N_2Could this be an odd play on the story Swiss Family Robinson? The story of 2001 Nights surrounds a family named Robinson… suprise. We begin with a married couple who volunteers frozen sperm and eggs that are sent on a far intergalactic voyage to populate a new planet since Earth is in it’s closing chapters. All the eventual offspring travel aboard a spaceship tied to a comet… a very clever way to travel. One by one the children are born giving a final total of 23, that eventually is cut by one due to a contracted illness. Once the spacecraft lands these 22 children are given an unspoiled utopia of a planet, a natural sight to be seen. The Robinson’s meanwhile have one child on Earth as well and he eventually plays into the role of the plot that by the end all becomes full circle.

2001N_32001 Nights shows a true testament of faith and belief in something higher than one’s self. A spiritual essence that we are not alone and someone is always watching out for you. And not whatever you call “God”, or aliens, but something more simple. Call it just mom and dad, or big brother. All life begins with a dream and in 2001 Nights the dream of growing beyond the limitations of a polluted Earth to start again fresh and unspoiled takes the ultimate paramount. Man playing “God”? Or maybe Man as the divine image of the essence of “God”, the universe, the great creator just continuing the very process that very beganoh so long ago. A new “Genesis” perhaps in the garden of not Eden, but Ozma instead?

2001N_4Originally based on the also named manga of 2001 Nights, the anime version takes a small bite out of the much larger story. Or perhaps, this is one plot interspersed in with several more that may end up all being one story in the end? The Robinson family’s tale is among these stories and I can admit this as I have a fragment of the 2001 Nights original release from VIZ. Some say the manga is better, but if you take the time to rewatch this hour long OVA a couple times, and connect the dots from previous viewings, you will begin to see the magic unfold. 2001 Nights is a treat and a blessing to those of us who still yearn for science fiction, space travel and wondering what is out there in the big unknown darkness, but have grown to accept more mature storytelling tastes.